Spare a thought for poor Anna Firth. Like millions of voters in England, on Thursday 4 May she headed to the polls. Alas, she had forgotten – or perhaps never realised – that you now need photo ID to cast your vote. Lacking this, she was turned away at the polling station – a situation replicated across the country as people who have voted in the same way for years suddenly found that exercising their democratic rights now involved jumping through additional unforeseen hoops.
You might have expected Firth to be more aware of the new requirements than the average member of the public. She is, after all, the Conservative MP for Southend West. It is her party that introduced the new rules last year in defiance of electoral experts and human rights groups who warned the changes would damage our democracy.
Voter fraud in the UK is exceedingly rare. According to the Electoral Commission, there are usually a few hundred allegations each election that are investigated by the police, and most of these involve campaigning offences rather than people attempting to vote fraudulently. The vast majority of these (over 90 per cent) do not lead to any further police action – in the last decade only a handful of cautions have been handed out for voting offences. This is out of an electorate of over 40 million.
Impersonation (pretending to be someone else at a polling station) is particularly rare, because the offender needs to know the name of a real person on the electoral roll in that area who would not be casting their vote, and would still only be able to cast one fraudulent vote at a time. As the Electoral Reform Society points out, “it is such a slow, clunky way to steal an election – and requires levels of organisation that would be easy to spot and prevent”. Where there have been examples of large-scale voter fraud (such as in the 2014 Tower Hamlets mayoral election), they did not involve impersonation at the polling station. Bribery, intimidation and misuse of the proxy vote system were the main culprits.
Nonetheless, impersonation is the non-existent threat the Conservatives decided to focus on by introducing mandatory photo ID. Never mind that, in the 2019 pilot, more than four times as many people were prevented from voting than have been accused of impersonating someone else at a polling station since 2010. Never mind that the list of IDs the government deemed acceptable was so brazenly geared towards older voters (over-60s travel passes and Oyster cards were valid – student IDs and young person’s railcards were not) the entire exercise looked suspiciously like an act of voter suppression. (In a video posted to Twitter, Firth wrongly states that bus passes can be used for ID; this is only true for the over-60s).
Never mind that an estimated two million registered voters in the UK lack a form of valid photo ID, and that the media campaign to encourage them to apply for a free “Voter Authority Certificate” was so woeful that just 0.5 per cent of people who might need one actually did so. Never mind that one local Conservative association handed out hundreds of leaflets wrongly telling people they didn’t need ID to vote after all.
And never mind that, on polling day itself, even Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was in government when the law was brought in, was warning that impersonation was so rare that “polling staff should be sensible and flexible”. This, the Tories argued, was all about “protecting the integrity of our elections”.
It is easy to look at the results of these local elections, in which the Conservatives have been thrashed even more decisively than anticipated, and breathe a sigh of relief. If this was a voter suppression tactic, it evidently wasn’t a very effective one. But the reports of tears at the polling station, of voters being rejected or simply not turning up at all because they lacked ID, tell a different story. Prior to voter ID being introduced, the Electoral Commission’s poll tracker showed that 80 per cent of people were confident that elections were well run and 87 per cent said voting in general was safe from fraud and abuse. Voter ID was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, either in reality or in the public imagination. All the new rules have done is to prevent some people who were eligible to engage in the democratic process from doing so. What sort of message does that send?
Firth went back to vote after collecting her ID. But both the 2019 pilot scheme and reports from staff at polling stations yesterday suggest many people who are turned away do not return. People have jobs and childcare responsibilities; they might have mobility issues or lack transport. They don’t have time to make a second trip to the polling station, even if they do have ID – and the failure of the government’s messaging means many of them don’t even though they are legitimately on the electoral roll. These people have been disenfranchised, barred from participating in our democracy due to scaremongering and paranoia. And that is far more damaging to the integrity of our elections than the occasional, almost always unfounded, suspicion of voter fraud.